Then and Now: NBA 2K

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

Retro Games PlusAll retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

Every console generation is a step up from the previous one. Naturally, when a new console is out, something must show off how powerful it is. For example, in the Super Nintendo era, that involved gratuitous use of Mode 7. When CD-based systems started hitting the market, it was all about shoving full motion video anywhere that could handle it. When the PlayStation and Saturn came out, it was all about 3D graphics; and after the Nintendo 64 took off, it was about analogue controls. We look quaintly back on those days, especially with those butt-ugly 3D graphics, but in most cases, the end result was inferior to what it would’ve been had the game been left to its own devices.

But what about the Dreamcast? The Dreamcast’s number one defining trait was that it was a better system than the PlayStation and Saturn. It didn’t reinvent the wheel, it just made it better. The titular games of that system were Sonic Adventure with Sonic in 3D; Soul Calibur, the first arcade port that was actually better than the arcade; and Crazy Taxi (okay, maybe tied for first). Online play was a big deal, but not everyone had access to broadband at that time. Most people—especially me, as I was on a carrier at the time—were playing single player.

Sports games are often pooh-poohed by the gaming establishment, but it cannot be understated just how impressive  games by Visual Concepts were in this era. Sega Sports put their sports franchises in the hands of a top-notch developer: as part of their insistence on taking on the established presence in the industry, EA Sports, they picked rebellious, counter-culture athletes to be their spokespeople. Today we look at NBA 2K, who used counter-culture athlete and former NBA MVP Allen Iverson as their spokesperson for five years, and see how the first game in the greatest basketball series of all time stands up in a genre notorious for a short shelf life.

NBA 2KNBA 2K
Original System: Dreamcast
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: Sega
Original Release Date: November 10, 1999

HOW WAS IT THEN: Simply put, NBA 2K was nothing short of a revelation when it was released. The only serious competition at the time was NBA Live, which was always a buggy, unrealistic mess. NBA 2K was miles ahead of NBA Live ’99; the quality wasn’t even close. Between the tighter controls, the superior options (e.g. a fantasy draft option), and the graphical polish that one wouldn’t expect for a first-year game, NBA 2K was so far ahead that it’s laughable, looking back.

There’s really no further need to go into the game. NBA 2K was more realistic, more polished, and simply better than anything else we saw in 1999.

THEN: A

HOW IS IT NOW: As noted before, sports games don’t age well. NBA 2K10 is a significantly inferior game to NBA 2K12. So predictably, NBA 2K isn’t in 2K12‘s stratosphere, but with the right mindset, it’s still playable in 2012.

The big difference between a game like NBA 2K12 and 2K is that the concept of “realistic” has changed with the technology. Improvements in game physics, movements, artificial intelligence, and over all technology allow for today’s games to do things that even the highly advanced games of twelve years ago could only dream of. NBA 2K12 not only looks and sounds like an NBA game, it feels like one. When a player shifts his weight into a crossover, you have to actually wait for the player’s left foot to hit the ground. Depending on that player’s stats and size, you consider the speed, agility, and ability of that player to execute the move; and the defence reacts based on that player’s own stats, size, and style. Some are individual styles based around superstar players, and in some cases they’re taken from the players themselves. Kobe Bryant’s turnaround jumper from the left block isn’t just a replica, it’s actually Kobe Bryant taking a turnaround jumper.

That previous paragraph makes 1999’s major athletic technology of motion capturing seem quaint, doesn’t it?

The lessons of over a decade of games development are shown when looking through the lens of the past. Players stop, start, and turn instantaneously. Furthermore, I never quite realized how far control had come before playing this game; I forgot that, even in the days where analogue control was king, NBA 2K only supported eight-direction control. That means if you have a circle and up is 0 degrees, you could only move at 45, 90, 135, etc. This makes NBA 2K and assumably other games of that era feel wild, like you can’t really control where you and the ball are going. As a result, it becomes more about breaking down individual matchups than it does about playing ball. Elite players like the Kobe Bryants and Shaquille O’Neals of the league can score upwards of 60 points in two-player games because there’s simply no motivation to give the ball to someone like Charlie Ward in a scoring position.

The end result of all of this is that NBA 2K, though the best simulation of its time, feels more like an arcade game in 2012, the spiritual equivalent or even something on the same evolutionary track as Konami’s Run and Gun series. This actually helps 2K more than older games in the series because, while those games were more realistic, NBA 2K is actually easier to pick up and play while still somewhat resembling actual basketball. That’s not the case with NBA 2K7, for example, and in six years, it won’t be the case with NBA 2K12.

NBA 2K wouldn’t even fly as an iOS game in 2012 because technology has blown the Dreamcast and its early generation titles out of the water. But the fact that this simulation sports game is even playable and somewhat enjoyable today is a testament to the work of the best sports developer in history, right up there with Tiburon.

NOW: D+

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.